Before I start, I’m going to tell you that I was pleased with the number of works that weren't photography. There seemed to be an effort and quality in craft that I've seen missing before. Too much of the work was obviously obvious, but when it wasn't it was really good. I didn't even mind the suspended walls and lighting. And I’m not going to get into performance because that’s not what I went for. So if you want to get turned on, see sexy stuff in a public place and not really think about art or be intellectually challenged; if you really like performance and a great party, an excuse to dress up in something really scandalous, and you want to get all hot and bothered; then the Seattle Erotic Art Festival is just the thing for you. Have a great time - you’re going to love it. I promise. And there’s really nothing wrong with that. SEAF serves a great purpose which I’ll get into later, and that’s a good thing.
But this is what I am left thinking about, post coital exposure (and now I am about to ensure that I will never again receive a press pass to the festival): :
My attendance was a calculated act, which oddly is the same reason I guest curated in 2009. I wanted to see if art could be art before it was erotic, and thus have more substance. After all, the sexiest art was always the work which was incidentally sensual. I wanted to prove all the people wrong who thought that erotic art meant only one thing, or a limited number of things. I wanted to be wrong in my assumption that the people running the festival felt that way in the first place. But as expected there was just a lot of nakedness and cheap one-liners. That didn't thrill me. It bored me. I can't possibly be alone.
You might wonder what the problem is and you're totally right if the only thing sex means to you is naked people and straight up porn. However, if you want actual multi-tiered stimulation that excites you beyond whatever gives you an erection then you're probably going to be disappointed [again].
Perhaps we can agree on these things (can we agree on these things?):
Sex is more than a naked person with a hot body. It's more than a naked person with a hot body arranged in an aesthetically pleasing manner with good lighting and/or honey or other questionable wet substance smeared all over it. Sex is more than a vagina presented to the camera with a fist in it. It's more than high-def genitalia, by itself, disembodied as though the person attached to it is nonexistent. Sex is more than just fucking, really, even if you are just submitting to a one night stand. Yes we've all fucked somebody just to fuck them. But what was it about them that got you in the first place, besides a tight ass, big tits, or huge cock? There are a ton of sexy people you've met to whom you've said no. Why is that? Think about it for a minute before you read further.
So without completely slamming the Festival, which I want to fully believe does the best it can with what it gets, I have some questions to present followed by a few suggestions:
Why would anyone put the bizarre and limiting pressure on themselves to be an “erotic” artist?
The work that should be there is work that is art first, sex later. I'm explicitly saying that erotic art is best when it's not set out to be erotic art. Everything else feels like a cheap attempt to elevate pornography. It’s no better than those really bad drawings you and your friend made in the back of your notebook in 6th grade. Artists have one driving force behind all bodies of work: philosophical intent. There’s always a narrative underneath the imagery. It’s almost as if in art, subject matter is circumstantial - no matter how much an artist claims the subject comes first, it’s really a projection of some underlying problem the artist is trying to solve, much in the manner of a scientific query. If there isn't some kind of philosophical intent behind the work, then the work itself becomes an empty shell. This isn't some kind of art theory, it’s just a fact.
Has the internet ruined it for everyone?
Porn is everywhere - in our magazines, movies, music videos, advertisements, in our fashion, and with our coffee, and I’d argue that most of us are just unimpressed with the abundance of sex we can get for free. Why would we pay? Amateur porn reins supreme. Even the porn industry itself is dying out. Why would anyone pay to see something on the wall that they can view on their screen?
And what about Tumblr?
Porn Tumblrs are everywhere. I have a Google Reader dedicated entirely to porn Tumblrs. On Tumblr you will find no end to an artful array of beautiful pictures having to do with sex: faux vintage shots with sun flares and hipster glasses, women draped artfully across a blanket on the grass with some kind of nostalgic item from 10/20/30 years ago, white skin on black skin on white skin in an gothy pile of glowing flesh, streams of endless looping gasp and lip-bites in the shape of a GIF. Beautiful erect cocks and bountiful breasts against which none of us can possibly compare in perfection, smoothness, brightness, and Photoshop. Maybe the festival could use Tumblr as the bar to beat.
So given the bounty of sex in the world, why is there a festival about it?
To raise awareness? To provoke the Right Wing? To make a statement about acceptance? To get people to talk about it? We’re all having it, and we all enjoy sexy images of sexy people.. What makes us want to pay the full admission price to see it on the wall - is it for the sake of seeing it on the wall? Maybe it’s the titillation itself of viewing it in public, and not being able to do anything about it until we get back behind closed doors. Maybe we’re all walking around hoping that suddenly everything’s going to turn into that party in Eyes Wide Shut. It won't, I can assure you.
Never mind that, here’s what I really think about why there’s a festival and how it could be better:
Americans still live in a repressed culture that shies away from any kind of open social and political advancement or conversation about the diversity and multiplicity of our very individual sexual lives. Because we can’t talk about it, sex is still ridiculously and adolescently humorous, as though we’re getting away with something that our parents won’t like and that makes us want it even more. We still have an alarming rate of ignorance about sexual health and function, and we still don’t seem to know how to keep the relationships we have because we’re so afraid of talking about it. Unfortunately, while I believe that the CSPC wants to increase the education and acceptance of our varied and wilder sexual identities, year after year this festival reminds me we're more and more disconnected from sexuality and more specifically, sensuality in our culture than before, and it isn’t promising to get better.
Again I'm just not really clear on the focus of the festival. It isn't entirely their fault - one part of them is heavily entrenched in the world of the Center for Sex Positive Culture while another part of them obviously wants to keep growing beyond it. Another problem is the effort to honour all the past artists who have put them where they are on the map, for fear of alienating their roots. Sadly the Masters of Erotic Art was the most boring wall in the place. SEAF needs to cut the cord. And yet another complication is the effort it takes to navigate through the legion of artwork that is the result of a broad call to art.. That's not even getting into the complicated politics of a multi-staffed jury that is negotiating the work the public gets to see.
Maybe this sort of show would be better served as a purely curated exhibition?
One or two people could work together to collect a group of artists they think fit their vision. Perhaps there could be a call for curators, with a proposal for a show. It would be a democratic and diverse process, with a different curator (or curator team) at the helm with either a theme or binding conceptual/aesthetic thread between the artists and the art they choose. There should be a strong curatorial vision and statement, published everywhere, along with a guide that educates viewers about the many different facets of sexuality, explaining some of the imagery in the show (especially the more violent themes found in S&M and bondage), and maybe even a few essays from guest writers or artists. The show could and should be smaller with an emphasis on quality over abundance, and perhaps the performance isn't gone but in an entirely different venue altogether so that people would willingly choose what they’re there for. After all, many festivals are in multiple venues. And it's really hard to look at art when the music is so loud you can't think. It's even harder if the lights are turned down to focus on the performance.
I conducted an informal poll on Facebook, asking people what they wanted out of an erotic art festival. People generally agreed that they wanted something “more” than what they found. My post reflects the opinions of people I asked, both kink-community involved, mainstream, and Seattle art world; and it does seem to be a general consensus that while people have been having a great time they’re yearning for something more stimulating - an interesting thought given the event is expressly based on stimulation. Almost everyone agreed that while they enjoyed the party, they wanted to enjoy the art more.
If I have any parting words for SEAF, it would be to think hard about the identity and message of the festival. Figure out what it means to talk about sex in a world that’s drenched in it. Allow yourself to open up to ideas that aren’t immediately obvious. And most importantly: make the assumption that your audience is smarter, more intellectual, more experienced, and harder to please than what you have previously thought. You might just be surprised.
The 10th anniversary Seattle Erotic Art Festival celebrates “10 Years of Love and Lust”, June 16-24, 2012. More than 10,000 attendees are anticipated for this showcase of visual art, interactive installations, performances, short film, literary art, after-parties, workshops and more, at Fremont Studios.